Thoughts on Do Humans Have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating?

This is the article in question. Equating the human species to pests that are, through overpopulation and overconsumption, a grave danger to their environment, the writer makes a moral case for humans to drastically reduce their own population, even make themselves extinct by ceasing to reproduce, or at least reflect on doing so, for the alternative is the destruction of not just the human species but also all life on earth.

Here is some thinking about this, including why any moral case is ultimately doomed. Originally an email to a friend:

If the problem definition is ensuring a sustainable, quality life for our species’ future generations, halting procreation temporarily is one of the many options humans have. Further down this response I’ll list a few others. There are, though, fundamental issues that will prevent us from exercising any of them meaningfully. 

I think human beings, even at their relatively advanced state of evolution, are incapable, when it comes to procreation, of rational thought, in depth, length and breadth. Let me explain.

Consider depth of thought. Assuming humans have perfect birth control, ie conceiving a baby is always a conscious choice, I would wager few if any consider whether they are themselves capable of bringing up a child. Have they figured out for themselves how to live without conflict with themselves, with others? Have they found the peace they wish their children to have? Have they understood how to live in harmony with others who are fundamentally self-interested, so that their child might too? If not, what upbringing do they provide their child beyond food, shelter, clothing? What concepts of self, of ownership, of rights, of obligations, of purpose do they instil? What response do they teach when these above are threatened? Do they teach at all or allow the child to learn on its own? If it’s a balance, where do they draw the line, for they – the parents – are themselves conditioned to protect the child and have expectations from it, imposing pretty onerous constraints on its development. But try having a rational, honest, respectful, deep discussion on this with the father (or mother) of one’ child, or its grandparents, and you’ll see how quickly you reach not just an impasse, but an actual repudiation of the necessity of considering any of these.

What of length? Of time? How far into the future do we think for ourselves, much less that plus one generation? Are we confident that the environment – in the broadest sense – that the child will live in in not five or ten years but thirty, forty years from now will be one in which he or she can thrive? What are we doing to maximize the odds before conception? And do we have any individual control over climate change, or pervasive pollution, or resource crunches (water primarily but also others)? Simply moving from say Bombay to one of the most liveable cities doesn’t solve for any of these in the long – even intermediate – term, but have we a plan to bring up our child in one of these places? 

Which brings us to the question of breadth. Our entire toolset of values and actions to ensure that our child thrives presupposes that others don’t have as effective a toolset. To complete the previous example, moving to say Copenhagen to bring up our child also carries an implicit expectation that the city won’t open its doors to all and sundry to move in. That there is a certain high bar of exclusion so that the baby, the child can grow up unsullied by the very environment you have worked so hard to escape. If the problem is one of sustainable quality of life for the species, this isn’t the right strategy, and we haven’t even gotten to morality yet. Preserving the bubble means your new homeland erects walls (hopefully ones of policy not concrete), and years later deals with the issue of underpopulation, where an increasingly small base of the young (grown-up baby now part of this!) supports the old. With calls for and incentives to have more children, couched in some form of appeal to nationality/identity but really just a call for more drones for the colony (Baby’s babies mere drones? Never. Let us look for another society to move to).

We are yet incapable of thinking as a species. We have only just (relatively speaking) reached a point where we consciously identify ourselves as such, distinct from other species. No pan-species organization (league of nations, UN), no pan-species policy (global free immigration, global free trade, global health care) has worked, or even has a shot at becoming anything more than a farce. The ideals we create and invoke – of mother/fatherland, of gods, are so abstract as to be meaningless, and are for our individual benefit, not our species’.

If we could think as a species, we’d be able to realistically consider several options for not just survival but much higher ideals. We know, have invented so many such options that could support much higher populations: vertical farms, renewable energy sources, cities two orders of magnitude larger than today, with fast, comfortable, ubiquitous public transport. Self-paced, universally distributed learning. Self-learning, self-replicating automation. And so on and on, in different spheres of human lives.

Yet we see each of these as threats, not opportunities. We artificially constrain the availability of learning so that a ‘degree’ from a particular institution has value derived primarily for its scarcity than its inherent content. We resist automation and preserve ‘jobs’. We resist renewable energy, resist moving to newly built cities (the Jing-jin-ji experiment in China or Manhattan, NYC?), we resist GM foods, resist public transport (freedom!). Many of us can see the end point (more honestly, some far-off point down an infinite path of progress as a species) that involves all of the above solutions, but we refuse to change to begin the move from this point to that, because we do not think of ourselves as a species. 

We are yet far too much a dramatically, fanatically individualistic animal for morals to have any meaning, much less any motivation.